The future is a frustratingly unpredictable thing. Perhaps most frustratingly, when there are predictable events in that future but the circumstances in which you expected them to take place do not turn out as anticipated. For example, our second child is on the way imminently, but I was recently made unemployed and totally didn’t see it coming. Now we are scrambling to figure out how to extend health insurance coverage in order to avoid having to ruin ourselves financially in paying for the hospital stay. You know, that kind of nuisance.
It is in times like this, when a little perspective is required and reassuring phrases like “we’ve endured worse than this before” or “we’ve taken bigger risks than this” start getting bandied around, as if, by repeating them mantra-like, one starts to believe them. In fact, it is remarkable the power that these personal pep-talks have. Having been virtually speechless for the several hours after my dismissal, the moment that I started such utterances I began to feel better and more in control of my situation. Of course, it is rather easier to say than to do, but three weeks on, I remain bullishly optimistic about where things are headed, in spite of being three weeks closer to being a parent of two children on no salary.
My optimism is certainly not unbridled nor unrealistic, but it is true that things could be significantly worse. On my train journey home that night, as my mind raced and my emotions oscillated between anger and fear for the future, a chance encounter illustrated this perfectly. Such was my self-absorption with my immediate present, that I had not noticed that a sharply-dressed man with a salt and pepper mustache had sat down next to me. After about twenty minutes, as we sat in the tunnel under the Hudson River, I became aware that he was craning his neck and taking great interest, as far as I could tell, in my chin. Putting my had to my chin self-consciously to check if I had been drooling, “Is there something I can help you with?”, I inquired somewhat curtly. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he replied calmly, “didn’t mean to worry you. I was just looking at your scarf. It’s a Manchester United scarf, isn’t it?”
Indeed it was a Manchester United scarf, I told him, at which point a broad smile emerged from under the bushy eaves of his mustache. “I had lunch with Ron Atkinson a few times back in the ’80s, you know.” “Really?” I replied, instantly curious and detecting some sort of accent that placed him outside of the New York/New Jersey metro area. “Where?” “In Johannesburg. I was his driver.” Turning to look at him, I saw that above his mustaches grew an enormously broad nose, with the kind of cavernous nostrils that could have provided shelter to entire families of flying mammals, on a chestnut colored-face out of which a pair of very lively brown eyes twinkled. Horn-rimmed spectacles sat comfortably amidst abundant but neatly combed salt and pepper hair giving him a slightly professorial look. Guessing his accent as South African, and he of Indian descent, I asked him what he was doing here on the New Jersey transit train to Trenton.
“Heading home.” he said. “Flying out of Newark to go and visit the family. They’re upset that I couldn’t make it for Diwali, but it’s been four years since I was back, so I think they’ll forgive me.” “I hope you have a great time. I know what it’s like not to see your family for years at a time too. What brought you to the United States?” I replied. “Well, I suppose you could say it was business. I came here in 1988 with a suitcase of samples from a South African plastics manufacturing company I was working for and never left.” “Wow, that is incredibly brave! To come here with nothing and just see what happened.” I blurted stupidly. “Kinda, but I was 26 at the time and I had the bravery or foolishness of youth in me. It wasn’t easy, and it took a while, but eventually it worked itself out. Funnily enough, by the time I became an American citizen, apartheid had ended and I could have gone home no questions asked, but that country is still a mess today and I have never regretted leaving.”
Reflecting that I, too, arrived in the US at aged 26 with little more than a suitcase, and even less idea of what the hell I was going to do next, I asked him what he did for a living now. He laughed. “I work for a plastics manufacturer in New Jersey, of course. One of the first things I learned when I got here was figure out what you know and use it. I can’t say it’s the most exciting work in the world, but I’ve never been out of work for long in spite of having a funny accent and an even funnier name.”
Fearing that I was being drawn unwittingly into some sort of parable, and unprepared to be any more introspective than I needed to be at that precise moment, I returned to the more comfortable subject of Manchester United and asked him how he had come to be driving Ron Atkinson around Johannesburg. Introducing himself as Rahul, we shook hands and he proceeded to fill me in on a piece of Manchester United club history of which I, a lifelong fan and amateur of the club’s storied annals, was unaware.
Ron Atkinson is famous in English football, almost as much for his largely successful career as a manager of a variety of clubs as for his idiosyncratic turn of phrase that, such was their regularity and noteworthiness, became known popularly as “Big Ron-isms” or “Ronglish”. Ironically, for a man famous for his humorous mot-justes, it was a series of unfortunately racist on-air gaffes as a broadcaster that ultimately spelled the end for his career in the game, but years before that in the 1980s he had reached the pinnacle of his managerial career with Manchester United, steering them to two FA Cup victories and one European Cup Winner’s Cup triumph. Underpinning this success throughout Atkinson’s reign had been the athleticism and defense marshaling skills of goalkeeper, Gary Bailey.
English by birth but raised in South Africa, Bailey began playing in Johannesburg before paying his own airfare to the UK for a trial with Manchester United. Ten years later, in the twilight of his career, in the late 1980s, he returned to South Africa to play for Jo’burg professional side, Kaizer Chiefs. It was in this period that, according to Rahul, Ron Atkinson had paid a visit to South Africa to see his old pal and taken a short holiday. Late one night, Rahul, who had encountered and befriended Atkinson and Bailey at a night club, ended up ferrying the pair of them home in the wee hours in his uncle’s vintage red Porsche. En route, Big Ron, as experienced a drinker as he was a man who knew how to plan for the future, decided that it was preferable to have a driver on hand for the remainder of his stay, being confident that this was unlikely to be the last time he’d need a ride while inebriated.
For the next week, Rahul was on-hand to drive the former Man Utd boss around Johannesburg and its environs in style as Atkinson variously stopped to sightsee and slake his thirst at a variety of watering-holes. Increasingly boisterous as the day wore on, his passenger was given to beerily chanting a seemingly limitless supply of lewd songs that amused Rahul and left him with the firm impression that if he ever had a boss half as jovial as the man who was using him as a taxi, he’d be more than content in his work. On the final day of his vacation, building up to propositioning Big Ron to sponsor his UK visa on the premise that he could do the same for him around Birmingham, in Atkinson’s recent capacity as manager of West Bromwich Albion, Rahul had planned an authentic Indian lunch at a restaurant belonging to a cousin of his at which he was going to make the big ask.
Picking him up at his hotel in the late morning, Rahul had noticed Big Ron was in a particularly ebullient mood, and may already have been drunk. Asking him why he was so happy, Atkinson replied that he had found out overnight that he been appointed as the new manager of Spanish giants, Atletico Madrid, and was flying directly to Spain that evening to be introduced to the press. Sitting through lunch at his cousin’s restaurant, as their honored guest was feted with a wondrous selection of house specialties, Rahul watched, crestfallen, as the man he had thought would be his ticket out of South Africa demolished course after course and drank his way into another stupor. “That sounds awful!” I said, “So, did you say anything to him?” “No, but I couldn’t believe my bad luck.” Rahul replied, “I resolved at that moment that I wasn’t going to rely on arse-kissing to get me where I wanted to go. I was going to get where I was going to go on my own merits.”
Again, reluctant to share any of my own recent experience with him, but seeing the obvious parallel, I responded “Good for you, and you did!” in a very banal fashion. Wagging his finger sagely as he stood up to get off at Newark Airport station, “The other lesson I learned that day: never discuss important business over lunch.” And, leaving that final aphorism hanging, we shook hands and said goodbye. He off to South Africa, I back to my family to break the bad news.
Since that day, the world has lost a shining light in Nelson Mandela, an example to all of us in the art of humility and compassion. Managing to overcome his feelings of injustice and bitterness towards his jailers, oppressors and opponents to unite his homeland and attempt to reconcile its seemingly irreconcilable divides, his story and legacy have always made me hopeful. So, in recognition of his passing, and in the hope that some of madiba’s example might rub off on me and allow me to forgive those who recently did wrong to me, we decided to take a crack at one of South Africa’s signature dishes, Bunny Chow.
Bunny Chow (serves 2)
For more people simply multiply the quantities.
Originating in the South African coastal city of Durban, home to a large population of Indian descent, bunny chow is, essentially, nothing more than curry poured into and over quarter of a loaf of white bread. How this curry came to be served with white bread rather than with the more typically Indian accompaniments of rice and roti is not 100% clear but most theories suppose it to have been to allow Indian sugar cane cutters a way of transporting their lunches to their place of work. How the name came about is also unclear, with suggestions variously indicating it was named for the bunia caste who served it or for the bunya or banyan tree under which the curries were sold.
Bunnies, as they are known, are typically ordered in the local slang as “quarter mutton”, referring to the meat therein and the quarter loaf it arrives in, and they are the ultimate scalable dish. Simply specify more of the loaf – a half, a full – to feed more people. That said, a bunny is quite filling, and it is not uncommon for a quarter to be shared between two.
And no, before you ask, there is no rabbit in the recipe, although I daresay some witty soul has made the mental leap and done so, probably with great success. We certainly wouldn’t be opposed to trying it in the future either but wanted to avoid being so trite publicly.
- 1lb stewing lamb cubes, or lamb shoulder chops hacked into chunks
- 1 large onion, sliced into half moons
- 3-6 cloves garlic, minced
- 3-5 medium tomatoes, chopped
- 3 green cardamom pods
- 1 stick cinnamon
- 1-2 whole star anise
- 3-5 curry leaves
- 1 tsp ground hot pepper
- 3 tbsp Madras curry powder
- 2 tsp garam masala
- 1 tsp ground coriander seed
- 1 tsp ground turmeric
- plain yogurt
- cooking oil or clarified butter
- 1 large unsliced loaf of your favorite white or wholewheat/meal bread. Tin loaves are preferable as receptacles because they stand up best by themselves.
- 3 tbsp chopped cilantro
- In a deep, heavy pot over medium flame, heat cinnamon stick, cardamom pods and star anise in 2 tablespoons cooking oil, for 2-3 minutes.
- Add onions and cook until translucent. Remove onions and whole spices to a plate and reserve.
- Add another tablespoon of oil to the pot and cook the lamb until nicely browned on all sides.
- Add a fourth tablespoon of oil and add powdered spices and curry leaves, stirring well. Cook for no more than two minutes before adding garlic and chopped tomatoes.
- Stir mixture well until a kind of paste is formed before returning onions and whole spices to the pot and adding enough water to cover everything.
- Bring to a simmer and cook covered for at least an hour, preferably two.
- After curry is cooked, taste for seasoning, and add salt (and in our case, the juice of half a lemon) to taste.
- Add two or three tablespoons of plain/natural yogurt (or cream, if you’re feeling fancy) and stir well. Taste again.
- It should be nicely spicy and thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. If it’s still a bit thin, either continue to simmer uncovered until the right thickness is achieved, or sieve a tablespoon of flour into it, and it should thicken up nicely.
- Cut your loaf into quarters, pull out some of the insides and reserve. Place quarter loaves on plates. Spoon curry into hollow bread, sprinkle with chopped cilantro, and place reserved doughy inside of loaf on top.
- Enjoy with a bottle of chilled South African white, a cup of rooibos tea, or as I prefer, a cold bottle of Castle lager.